Ulrich Seidl likes to go where it hurts and, over the last 35 years, he’s been there and back again many times in his relentless attempt to explore the murkier depths and chasms of Austrian society. Sometimes he digs deeper than anyone else would dare, as in his 1994 documentary Animal Love (Tierische Liebe), in which he portrayed a number of Viennese residents who turn to their animals for affection and more. At other times, such as in his most recent Paradise trilogy, he uses fictional settings and stories to sting, invade and undermine the human psyche and the terrifying obsessions and perversions it can nurture, fiercely drawing out patterns of social behaviour that range from the mundane to the extreme.
In his latest documentary, In the Basement, he sets out to investigate what’s happening in Austrian cellars and what kind of relationship the often dubious owners have with their precious spaces underground. And as one would expect from a Seidl film, what he finds is a bunch of rather obscure characters, framed and juxtaposed in carefully arranged single-take shots with non-judgemental compassion, who (at least partially) seem almost desperate to step out of the shade and into the spotlight of his honest, vigilant camera. Among the most memorable are a failed opera singer who has turned his cellar into a fully operational underground shooting range; a devoted Nazi and his memorabilia cabinet; the inhabitants of professional and private SM-studios; and the ‘mommy’ of shockingly natural-looking baby dolls stored in shoe boxes.
The portraits are filmed in typical, tableau-like perfection, mocking both the protagonists within the film and the act of documentary filmmaking itself. To some extent, In the Basement is crafted in the same way that John Waters created Shock Value, an often fascinating, frequently creepy, unashamedly funny compilation of oddities and curiosities that are occasionally hard to digest. And yet, over the course of the film you begin to wonder whether there is anything new, anything unique being said here that couldn’t be found elsewhere.
Still, what becomes clear after watching In the Basement is that even after more than three decades of arduous research, Seidl doesn’t seem to run short of impaired souls to explore and portray in his films, and his combination of grotesque rituals with tragic comedy is handled with an increasingly deft balance of wit, irony and candour in almost every work he produces. And even if the film makes no direct connection to the case of Joseph Fritzl – the Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned in the cellar of their very own house, raped and abused her over nearly a quarter of a century, and fathered her seven children – the mere thought of his existence adds a layer of disconcerting reality to Seidl’s protagonists who merrily display and confirm that whatever is happening in some Austrian basements these days, it’s far from the ordinary.